BRITISH BLUES ARCHIVE

T Bone Walker

 

T-BONE WALKER Low Down Blues Original Black & White Recordings Charly CD7

 

 

"I can still hear T-Bone in my mind today, from that first record I heard, Stormy Monday. He was the first electric guitar player I heard on record . . . He made me so that I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar."

Thus spoke B.B. King of the influence of T-Bone Walker. In fact talk to any postwar blues guitarist especially those from the west coast, and you will hear much the same story. A whole generation of aspiring blues artists from Texas, California, Oklahoma and even as far afield as Memphis and Chicago took up electric guitar after listening to T-Bone Walker records. Through their recordings, Walker's innovative style of playing still lives in the blues of today.

Of Cherokee Indian descent, Aaron Thibeaux Walker was a second generation bluesman who was born in Linden, Cass County, Texas on May 28th 1910. Until his death in 1975 he was one of the few bluesmen whose life had truly spanned the recorded and documented history of the blues.

"When I was a kid growing up in Dallas I met the great Blind Lemon Jefferson", Walker reminisced of his childhood. "He played the guitar while my uncle he played the mandolin and my father played the bass. A sort of big family band, you know." From such beginnings the young 'T-Bou' (Thibeaux phonetically) began the rounds of the travelling medicine and minstrel shows, black corking his face to sing vaudeville songs like Coming Round The Mountain or to tell jokes, all as a prelude to selling the medicine which would earn him $15 a week. A photograph taken in 1925 shows a fifteen year old T-Bone Walker outside a medicine show tent on whose canvas the name 'Breeden Medicine Show' is clearly discernible and it was apparently one of T-Bone's tasks to sell the improbably named elixir' Dr Breeden's Big B Medicine'. By the mid twenties he was playing the banjo in Ma Rainey's carnival shows and singer Ida Cox remembers T-Bone as a 'teener' joining her travelling troupe as a banjo player some time in the late twenties.

In November and December 1929 Columbia talent scouts were in Dallas with a field recording unit seeking out new blues singers for their 1400 race series. On December 5th 1929 the unit recorded Whistlin' Alex Moore, Coley Jones, The Dallas String Band and Texas Bill Day as well as two titles by a very mature sounding nineteen year old called Oak CliffT-Bone. The nom-de-disque was derived from the Negro ghetto quarter of Dallas which was called Oak Cliff and which Blind Lemon Jefferson immortalised in his Booger Rooger Blues of 1926. In the best Blind Lemon tradition Oak Cliff T-Bone hollered his way through Trinity River Blues and Wichita Falls Blues, the final line of which, in hindsight, had a certain note of irony given that it was to be almost another ten years before he was to record again: "If anybody should happen to ask you baby, who composed this song, tell 'em sweet papa T-Bone, he been here and gone".

During the following decade he gradually moved in the direction of sophistication and big band jazz rather than building a career as an earthy, rural bluesman. It is interesting to speculate what degree of success, or otherwise, T-Bone would have had if he had chosen to follow in the footsteps of his great contemporaries and remained a rural race artist. However, he didn't, and in the thirties he began working dance dates throughout Texas with the bands of Count Biloski and Milt Larkins. In 1934 he moved to the west coast teaming up with the orchestra of saxophonist Les Hite with whom he played all the big venues in New York, like the Apollo Theatre and the Golden Gate Ballroom, there developing his now famous stage techniques of duck walking, playing the guitar behind his head while doing the splits (no easy accomplishment) and even on occasion picking the guitar strings with his teeth. Showmanship that thirty or more years later was to be adopted by Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrlx.

It was with Hite's Orchestra that he next recorded in 1940 for the Varsity label as their featured guitarist as well as vocalising on his own T-Bone Blues, the arrangement of which has since been pinpointed by commentators as the first steps to the future sound of black, post-war rhythm and blues.

In 1942 Walker became associated with the white pianist Freddie Slack who, at the time, had in his fifteen piece band the former King Oliver clarinettist Leon "Barney" Bigard. Together with vocalists Ella Mae Morse and Johnny Mercer, on 20th July that year they went into the studios of Capitol Records and recorded six numbers. For two of those the horn section stepped down and with just the rhythm section for accompaniment, T-Bone cut what was to be his first big success, I Got A Break Baby c/w Mean Old World. Two years later he was back in the Capitol studio with the Slack Orchestra but his one vocal offering of the session, Sit and Sip, failed to be chosen for release. His association with Slack had led to a residency in a black, southside Chicago night club called 'Rumboogie' a booking which lasted, on and off, until the club's closure in 1945. The club's owner, Charlie Glenn diverted his energies into an enterprise called Rumboogie Records and its first releases were by, not unnaturally, T-Bone Walker backed by the Marl Young Orchestra. In an advertisement in the trade paper Billboard on November 10th 1945 Glenn proudly boasted that Walker's first release for him had "already sold 50,000 copies". Later that year, again with the Young band, he recorded once more for Rumboogie but the four songs were not issued on 78 until following the demise of Rumboogie, they were acquired by Mercury, who in turn leased the sides to another Chicago based label, Old Swingmaster.

In October 1946 T-Bone Walker left the Windy City and returned to the west coast. The twenty-two tracks presented here were recorded in Los Angeles for Paul and Lillian Reiner's Black & White Records in the period between late 1946 and early 1948. These sides are very much the logical extension to his work with the Hite Orchestra and are arguably the best and most influential recordings of his entire career.

The secret of his success with Black & White probably lay in the pedigree and supreme artistry of the jazz musicians chosen to accompany him, and their ability to play in a blues setting. Artists such as tenor player Jack McVea, or one-time Basie trumpeter Al Killian (who was murdered by his psychopathic landlord in 1947) and Jimmy Lunceford's ex-tenor man, Hubert 'Bumps' Myers, all complement Walker's smooth yet insistent vocals and technically superb, if on occasion flamboyant guitar phrases. These recordings are easy listening of the best sort, running the whole gamut of popular black sounds of the forties - blues (Call It Stormy Monday), shuffles (T-Bone Shuffle), jumps (T-Bone Jumps Again), jives (Hypin' Woman), even Latin American (Plain Old Down Home Blues) - all delivered with stylish aplomb and musical brilliance.

The music of T-Bone Walker is, like that of his great contemporary Louis Jordan, timeless, because its appeal is universal whether the listener's taste in music be jazz big-band, blues, rhythm and blues or ballad. What makes the music on this CD transcend the time barrier so perfectly? Perhaps it is because the music is borne of experience and feeling or more simply in the words of the man himself, "The songs have stories behind them and the stories are of some person or somebody who have lived that life of it." Who are we to argue with that?

Alan Balfour/CD booklet December 1985

T-Bone Blues
T-Bone Walker's Story In His Own Words
From Stenographic Notes by Jane Greenhough


"EVERYBODY in the South has a nickname or initial. I was called "T-Bow" but the people got it mixed up with "T-Bone." My name is Aaron Walker but "T-Bone" is catchy, people remember it. My auntie gave it to me when I was a kid. Mother's mother was a Cherokee Indian full blooded. There were sixteen girls and two boys in my mother's family, all dead  but two.

I just naturally started to play music. My whole family played—my daddy played, my mother played. My daddy played bass, my cousin played banjo, guitar and mandolin. We played at root beer stands, like the Drive-ins they have now, making $2.50 a night, and we had a cigar box for the kitty that we passed around, sometimes making fifty or sixty dollars a night. Of course we didn't get none of it, we kids. I and my first cousin were the only kids in the band. Before I came to California, Charlie Christian and I did the same thing in root beer stands. I'd play banjo a while, then dance a while.

I was born in a little town called Linden near Texarkana, then moved to Dallas. Ida Cox picked me up in Dallas where I was working at Eddie's Drive-In. I was working there singing like Cab Calloway, making a bit of noise, and a hotel about two blocks away complained and they sent the wagon to take us to jail. We'd start work at seven and by nine every night for two weeks the wagon would come—the whole band would be in jail every night. I said, "I quit, I'm tired of going to jail."

Ida Cox—since I was a kid she was one of my favorite blues singers. I went on the road with her on a tour of the South. Twelve girls in the chorus, two principals, two comedians. I used to play thirty-five or forty choruses of "Tiger Rag" with a table in my teeth and the banjo on the back of my neck. Never had a toothache in my life, and I used to carry tables in my teeth and tap dance at the same time. I started that in Fort Worth at the Jim Hotel. When I was with Ida Cox and we were broke we used to eat syrup and bread, without even any butter with it. We did "Coming Around the Mountain," and the old numbers, mostly comical, and the blues and tried to be funny. One of the comedians had a bazooka and played a tin Prince Albert can with his fingers. Then I had to go home and go to school. I didn't drink or smoke then, but I did play penny dice. I was just learning to shoot then.

I also worked in a medicine show, selling Big B Tonic, with Josephus Cook and Dr. Breeding I used to get five dollars and he sent my mother ten. I used to make the medicine, too, made it in a tub with black draught. It was called BB—double B and they were willing to pay a dollar for it be cause it was two dollars at the drug store. He got rich on that—it cost thirty-five cents to mix. We had movies, a stage show, a trailer and a Model T Ford. We played at small towns where people didn't have no sense and we really sold it.

LeRoy Carr gave me the inspiration for singing the blues. He was a terrific blues singer and he played with a fellow named Scrappin Iron or Scrapper Blackwell, some thing like that. I play in almost the same style they do. I'll take Floyd Smith for blues playing today, and I'm crazy about Alvino Ray for his style. He uses a Hawaiian guitar, but you can't make it sing the blues. I can't play the Hawaiian guitar, can't make a note on one of those things. but I like his tone and his style.

I used to hear all the singers, but LeRoy Carr was my favorite and still is. If there was music, I was right there. LeRoy used to sing "When the Sun Goes Down" and "Monte Carlo Blues" and "Night Time Is the Right Time." I still sing those numbers. I used to lead Blind Lemon Jefferson around playing and passing the cup, take him from one beer joint to another, I liked to hear him play. He could sing like nobody's business. He was a friend of my father's. People used to crowd around so you couldn't see him. Blind Lemon was from Galveston. He was dark yellow and weighed around 175 or 180, kind of reminds you of Art Tatum the way he looked.

Bessie Smith is my favorite girl blues singer. Ma Rainey could sing the blues, but she couldn't sing the blues like Bessie. They had different styles. Bessie was the QUEEN for everybody better than Ethel \Waters. She was REALLY great, she could sing ANYTHING. Billie Holiday doesn't sing the blues. People will like the blues as long as they are in the world. Blind Lemon, LeRoy Carr, sang the real blues—and Lonnie Johnson—old man now, still working. Wonderful blues singer, Don't ever leave him out. Sharpest cat in the world, wore a silk shirt blowing in the wind in the winter nice head of hair, and a twenty-dollar gold piece made into a stickpin.

I never took a music lesson in my life, but I can read and write music and play seven different instruments. I used to think I was a terrific piano player, played boogie woogie all the time. Once I played with a band for two years without knowing what a note was. From different kids in the band if I got a wrong chord they told me how it should be.

In 1933 I left Dallas with a white band that I led and danced with, the only colored man in the show, all dressed up in white tails. I even danced with a white girl for a partner. Everybody asked me questions about California, because the band was from California. They asked me about movie stars but I couldn't tell them anything because I'd never been in California at that time.

I met Bessie Smith at Fort Worth at the Fat Stock Show in 1933-34 with Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey was a heavy set dark lady, mean l as hell but she sang nice blues and she never cussed ME out. She had a show with the Haines Carnival at the Stock Show and I played for her.

I left the South in 1934 and in 1935 I began playing an electric guitar.

Well, I decided to make music my career since 1941. Before that, if I was playing, if I made money, OK. If I didn't, OK, I'd get me another kind of job. At that time I was playing at Little Harlem in the south part of Los Angeles, and a girl used to come to hear me every night. Finally she got tired of coming so far to hear me so she arranged for me to get a job with real good pay in Hollywood, arid then I started to get my name. I played at Billy Berg's Capri Club and the Trocadero and lots of other Hollywood spots after that.   I started making records again too. The first time I ever made a record I was only sixteen years old. It was for Columbia and I made "Wichita Falls Blues" and "Trinity River Blues" with banjo and guitar accompaniment, under the name of Oak-Cliff T-Bone. Oak-Cliff was where I lived then. Columbia had people out scouting for talent and they picked me up. Later I made "T-Bone Blues." Commodore bought the master and now Blue Note has it. I never made a penny out of that, but Les Hite and Louis Jordan made a million on it. I make records so fast now I don't even have time to learn the words. I read it right through and make a rehearsal one day and a record the next day. Then I take the records home and study them to learn the lyrics. People can't believe I don't know how to sing my own records. Lately I've made "Bobby Socks Baby" and "Mean Old World." I've got a year's option with Black & White and Phil Moore is my director. The other day I got a check for two thousand dollars for royalties.

 

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